The clock is running down to the 11 May deadline for responses to the Scottish Government’s consultation paper on the referendum. Early skirmishes on the referendum have died down but we may have another two and a half years to agonise over the issue. It would be tragic, insulting and defy common sense if that time was spent only saying ‘No’ to independence without a new and better alternative for Scotland being hammered out on the anvil of Scottish democracy by the Unionist parties.
Britain remains an overcentralised State and, whether or not Westminster is fed up with the constitutional question, it won’t go away. That is why it would be convenient and less challenging to pretend that defeating independence will be an end to the nation’s search for a better constitutional future.
However, this quest will continue, so why should the Unionist parties cling on to the idea that it won’t and waste the period up to 2014? Scottish voters will be unforgiving of any party that decides to put fear, hate and obsession with the SNP before the cool logic of what is in their interests and those of the nation.
Labour has to get over the SNP and accept that the constitutional issue is about the future of Scotland, and not the future of the SNP. Labour has to accept that there will be a transformation of Scotland’s role within the Union. This is not a question of if, but when. The only question then is when does Labour start to inject urgency into the debate? Labour is in danger of allowing the SNP to continue its domination of the issue. Labour is much bigger than this and has more to offer. The ‘either/or’ notion makes no sense to Labour voters and potential voters, the majority of whom believe that both the Union in its present guise and a rather tired vision of Independence are eclipsed by a Devo-Max or Devo-Plus option. Democracy is strengthened when politicians and political parties listen to the views of the people.
There are compelling reasons for a second question and a bigger choice for Scots.
Firstly, Scots are not inspired by the current alternatives. Secondly, much polling suggests that the idea of more devolution within the Union is a sensible idea, despite the lack, so far, of a completely worked out alternative.
Thirdly, there seems little point in waking up the day after the referendum and realising we are absolutely no further forward than we are today about the future of the country except to say that Independence is defeated. Finally in our democracy the Scottish people should retain control of the constitutional debate. The current thinking of the Unionist parties is to promise the earth at a later stage but only if Independence is defeated first. This would mean Scots losing control and the issue being hijacked by Westminster.
There is also the simple but insulting thread running through Unionist arguments that Scots would find the notion of two questions or ideas difficult to cope with.
To counter the two question argument the Unionist parties are saying three things. Firstly, that if voters trust them and Westminster and vote to defeat Independence, greater devolution will be on the cards. Secondly, commitments to further change in their manifestos for the Westminster elections in 2015 are being offered.
Thirdly, there is an undercurrent of Unionist thinking that after we defeat the spectre of Independence people will be sick and tired of devolution and we can all get back to business as usual.
These arguments don’t make any sense because they are empty promises, which in practical terms are neither reassuring or deliverable, especially when faced with the nightmare scenario of the Conservatives winning an outright majority in 2015. Scots would lose control over their own future, few people would believe that Westminster would be up to the job and with the current state of disillusionment with Westminster politics there would be enough cynicism to fill every ballot box in the country. Trust is lacking in our democracy.
Edinburgh University’s School of Social and Political Science in its submission to the Westminster consultation said: “We believe that the referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future is an appropriate opportunity to revisit the constitutional settlement established following the 1997 referendum on Scottish devolution by determining the constitutional preference of the Scottish people, including a stronger form of devolution in the UK.” Professor Michael Keating at the University of Aberdeen said: “Evidence from opinion surveys shows a large body of Scots (usually the largest) is opposed to both independence and the status quo. It also shows that they do not make a sharp distinction between independence and advanced devolution, but rather see these as lying on a spectrum. Devo-Max is a difficult idea and, as usual, the devil is in the detail, but to dismiss it out of hand is to polarise the national debate needlessly and (Unionists beware) to provoke people into voting for independence as their second best option.” There is an overwhelming case for a second question to give real choice to the Scottish people and if, as everyone says, the ‘Yes’ vote should be unambiguous, then so too should be the meaning of the ‘No’ vote.